The Best Insulated Jacket for Men Review
What is the best synthetic insulated jacket? To find out, we took 14 of the highest performing synthetic insulated jackets and compared and contrasted them after extensive side-by-side testing. We evaluated thick jackets and thin ones, as well as models with hoods and without. We wore them under and over shells while hiking, climbing, and skiing; and as stand-alone outer layers around town and in the backcountry. Each product has been rated in six metrics: warmth, weight and compressibility, comfort, weather resistance, breathability, and style.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Insulated Jacket
Rab Xenon X Hoodie
Best Bang for the Buck
Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket
Top Pick Award for Breathability
Patagonia Nano Air Hoody
Top Pick Award for Warmth
Patagonia DAS Parka
Honorable Mention for Layering: The North Face ThermoBall Jacket
The North Face ThermoBall Jacket previously won our Best Buy Award, but the affordable new addition to our field, the Outdoor Research Cathode, edged it out this year. The ThermoBall is still our favorite light dedicated mid-layer, and it's stylish for casual wear to boot. We found the down-like ThermoBall insulation very lofty and quick to dry if it gets wet. If you're seeking a dedicated mid-layer to wear under a shell, we still highly recommend this stylish and functional jacket.
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Analysis and Test Results
An insulated jacket is an essential layer for cool and cold weather. This style of jacket has traditionally been intended for wear as either a middle layer under a shell or as an outer layer in cool weather. However, use modes are always evolving and our selection now includes new breathable insulation technologies that allow better warmth and sweat management for high energy, cold weather adventures. We also tested several products that focus on warmth and weather resistance rather than breathability, including a few heavier models designed as outer layers for really cold temps. All of the products we tested in this review are insulated with various types of synthetic insulation. These modern polyester alternatives to goose down do a much better job of retaining their loft and warmth when damp or wet.
Despite its benefits when wet, however, synthetic insulation is less warm for its weight than goose down. You'll find reviews of state-of-the-art down insulating layers in our Men's Down Jacket Review and Men's Winter Jacket Review. The pieces in the down jacket category are similar in warmth to the products tested in this review, though they are generally a little lighter and more compressible. The winter jackets are burly, down-insulated parkas ideal for hunkering down in the coldest weather.
Synthetic vs. Down vs. Fleece
Let's take a minute and make the case for choosing synthetic insulation over down. Generally speaking, down is much warmer for its weight than synthetic insulation. In terms of offering weight-efficient warmth, synthetics have yet to match mother nature, though the gap is closing. Down however, has one major drawback - it is vulnerable to moisture.
Down loses its loft and its ability to keep you warm when it gets wet. The primary reason to choose synthetic insulation over down is that synthetics are not as susceptible to moisture. This means that a synthetic jacket will maintain its insulating capabilities much better when wet.
When used as a mid-layer under a shell, a jacket with synthetic insulation will not lose its warmth by accumulating sweat like down is prone to do. When used as an outer layer, insulated jackets also have extended functionality in snow or light rain. Moreover, they are often more affordable than down, which makes them a great value. Fleece jackets or pullovers also serve as both mid-layers and outer layers. Although synthetic is warmer for its weight than fleece and offers better weather protection when used as an outer layer, fleece is more breathable and much cozier. Check out our Buying Advice article for an in-depth comparison of down and synthetic insulation, including breathable synthetics and information about hydrophobic treatments for down.
Types of Synthetic Insulated Jackets
In this review, we tested a diverse group of products with a wide range of best applications. Along the warmth continuum, there are thin pieces built with 60 g/m2 insulating fibers and models with upwards of 200 g/m2 insulation in the torso area. In addition, some of the designs focus on breathability and comfort for high energy use, while others focus on maximizing warmth and weather resistance. In this section, we detail the different types of jackets on the market by lumping them in four loose groups.
Visit our individual reviews where we compare each model closely with the most similar pieces.
Lightweight with High Breathability
First, we have a group of lightly insulated jackets that have insulation specifically engineered for breathability and design features geared toward high energy efforts in the cold. The Nano Air Hoody uses a proprietary breathable insulation developed by Patagonia, and the Outdoor Research Uberlayer and Rab Strata Hoody are built with moisture-wicking Polartec Alpha. Both types of insulation are engineered to increase your comfort range during heavy exertion by improving air flow, wicking away moisture, and stretching more than traditional synthetics. The trade-off is less wind resistance and less warmth. The Nano Air is the most breathable and comfortable model we tested, but the warmer and heavier Uberlayer is close behind. Both are able to handle high energy activity by allowing warm, moist air to escape. The Strata uses a more wind resistant shell fabric, but still wicks and breathes well. It also incorporates large hand pockets that double as core vents.
Products in this category include:
Patagonia Nano Air Hoody (Top Pick for Breathability)
Outdoor Research Uberlayer Hooded Jacket
Rab Strata Hoody
Lightweight with Hybrid Construction
Lightweight jackets that use traditional synthetic insulation and shell fabrics don't usually breathe well, but these hybrids add thin, stretchy, and breathable fabric in key areas All the jackets in this category have a combination of features that focus on wind resistance in some areas but promote breathability in others. The Outdoor Research Cathode, Arc'teryx Atom LT, and Columbia Mighty Lite all incorporate highly breathable softshell panels in key areas under the arms and insulated, wind resistant construction on the chest and back. We find this style of construction very comfortable and versatile. The low bulk under the arms is also quite comfortable and increases mobility. These jackets can dump heat and moisture from the breathable panels while still protecting your core from cold wind when worn as an outer layer.
Products in this category include:
Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket (Best Buy)
Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody
Columbia Mighty Lite Hybrid
Lightweight Traditional Style Insulated Jackets
As we continue along the lightweight jacket continuum, we find lightly insulated products that are less capable of shedding heat and sweat (less breathable), and instead focus on protecting you from wind and a little bit of rain or snow. These jackets use wind resistant ripstop nylon for the entire shell and some incorporate near continuous liners or shell fabric to block the wind. The Rab Xenon X uses a near continuous outer shell fabric designed to block wind and resist water and is warmer than similarly light models – it is our hands-down favorite for a lightly insulated jacket used as an outer layer.
The Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody balances breathability and wind resistance well. It does have a sewn-through exterior fabric, but also a continuous inner liner that serves to block air flow from the outside and promote the wicking away of sweat. The hoodless Micro Thermostatic is similarly constructed – sewn-through construction backed by an interior liner. The North Face ThermoBall and Montbell Thermawrap also fall into this category - both use quilted construction sewn through the inner liner. Their stitching is sewn completely through the shell and liner fabric, which promotes air flow when the wind blows and creates thousands of small holes for warm air to move through when worn under a shell.
Products in this category include:
Rab Xenon X Hoodie (Editors' Choice)
Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody
The North Face ThermoBall
Montbell UL Thermawrap
Mountain Hardwear Micro Thermostatic
Medium to Heavy Insulated Jackets
Finally, there's a group of products that have more insulation and, in the case of the DAS Parka, significantly more. The DAS is easily the warmest model we tested. The medium insulated Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody is still primarily designed as a mid-layer for frigid weather, but performs very well as an outer layer in cold weather. The Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor is a very warm jacket, but doesn't have the performance features we expect in a medium/heavy model. The heavily insulated DAS uses a PU-coated outer fabric with additional water resistance, as it is designed to be worn as a terminal layer. It is an awesome belay parka for ice climbing.
Products in this category include:
Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody
Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor
Patagonia DAS Parka (Top Pick for Warmth)
Criteria For Evaluation
First and foremost, the jacket you choose, combined with your other upper layers, needs to keep you warm in the weather you plan to use it in. We've weighted this metric most heavily: 25% of each model's overall score. As we detailed above, down is warmer for the weight than synthetic insulation, however, the scores we awarded to the jackets in this review only compare their warmth relative to each other. The models in this review span thicker pieces that are intended as an outermost layer in truly cold weather and thinner pieces intended to be used as mid-layers. These thinner jackets also make excellent outer layers for around town wear in the cooler months.
Three products we tested use significantly more insulation than the rest of the field. The Patagonia DAS Parka - our Top Pick for Warmth - is the warmest model we tested, as well as the heaviest and least compressible. It is a perfect belay jacket for ice routes and winter climbing. It also has several nice climbing-oriented features, including large interior mesh pockets and a beefy two-way zipper that also opens from the bottom up. The Arc'teryx Atom AR Hoody, with 120 g/m2 torso insulation is a brilliant mid-layer for truly cold weather and a stylish jacket for cold casual wear. If you downhill ski in a hardshell, this medium insulated jacket is a great mid layer for cold lift rides. Similar in warmth to the Atom AR is the Mountain Hardwear Super Compressor, it is sized to function as an outer layer, but doesn't have the technical features we expect for climbing or skiing use.
Comparing the warmth of the lightly insulated models is challenging. Some are designed in whole or part to allow wind to blow through for breathability, but others are very wind resistant. To pick a point of comparison, we rated their warmth as an outer layer when worn over warm baselayers with a light breeze blowing. When you visit our individual reviews, we compare each model's warmth directly to the most similar products. Among the lighter weight models we tested, the Rab Xenon X Hoodie and Outdoor Research Uberlayer stand out for the warmth they provide. However, the Xenon X is much more wind resistant and warmer when used as an outer layer in windy conditions. The lightest jackets in the review, the Montbell UL Thermawrap and Mountain Hardwear Thermostatic, were also the least warm. These compressible, superlight, hoodless models are excellent mid-layers for backpacking and hiking.
Weight & Compressibility
An insulated jacket is one of those pieces that we find ourselves taking everywhere, and here at OutdoorGearLab, light is usually right. All else being near equal, we'll choose the lighter and more compressible model almost every time. Our scores for weight and compressiblity contribute 20% to overall scores. The lightest, most compressible jacket we tested is the Montbell UL Thermawrap Jacket. It uses some of the lightest insulation - 50 g/m2 Exceloft - and is a superlight mid-layer. The Mountain Hardwear Micro Thermostatic, The North Face ThermoBall Jacket, and Outdoor Research Cathode Hooded Jacket are the next lightest models we tested, and all have outstanding warmth-to-weight ratios when used as a mid-layer. All four of these models weigh less than 13 ounces, but the Cathode is the only one with a hood. It is impressively light. That said, if you prioritize warmth for weight, it's hard to beat the Editors' Choice Xenon X. It is only a quarter of an ounce heavier than the Cathode, much more wind resistant, and with additional comfort features.
We also greatly appreciate a jacket that stows away in one of its pockets. This feature makes just-in-case storage in a backpack easy and serves to keep the outer fabric clean and protect its DWR treatment from wear. Most of the models we tested stuff into a pocket or come with a stuff sack. The Xenon X, Cathode, and Nano Puff Hoody are our favorite stuffable pieces; all are compact, have a clip loop, and regularly traveled on our testers' harnesses when climbing.
On the other end of the spectrum, big, heavily insulated products like the Patagonia DAS don't compress well. This product is designed for warmth and uses a type of PrimaLoft insulation known for its loft rather than its compressibility. Expect the DAS to take up a lot of space in your pack.
Four of the competitors are pictured stuffed above. While the Xenon X and Nano Puff are very similar in size when stowed in their pockets, the Xenon X could compress even smaller, while the Nano Puff is packed in there fairly tightly. The Thermoball and UL Thermawrap can both be compressed to less than half the size we see here. So, why not make the stuff sack as small as possible? While synthetic insulation has become more compressible over the years, long-term durability is still an issue. The fibers' ability to rebound to their full loft decreases with repeated compression and the more tightly you compact them, the more wear and tear you put on their fine fiber matrices.
In this category, we assessed the mobility of each test piece, as well as the small details that made each product more comfortable. We found that some jackets moved better with us than others, and some had little features like fleece-lined chin guards or hand pockets that deliver lots of happiness for minimal weight. Let's discuss mobility first; this is an important attribute for a jacket. When you reach overhead for a climbing hold or to reach into the top of your pack, a model that stays put on your torso without the waist hem being tugged upwards is appreciated. We also assessed how easily we could move our arms, as well as the general mobility of the hoods (when applicable). Ease of use is also an important consideration when we compare jackets. Nice zipper pulls, pockets in just the right places, and convenient hood adjustments are a few of the features that contribute to higher comfort scores. In each product's individual review, we provide a run down of the small details that make us love certain models. Scores awarded for comfort contribute 20% of each model's overall score.
We quickly came to love the comfort (a perfect 10!) of both the Patagonia Nano Air and Outdoor Research Uberlayer. The soft, stretchy fabrics feel great, provide excellent mobility, and wick away sweat. The Nano Air's hood fits and feels great and this product is the only one we tested with two exterior chest pockets, a simple but very useful feature. Both the Arc'teryx Atom LT Hoody and warmer Arc'teryx Atom AR also received high comfort scores. Both these models have comfy, low-bulk cuffs, well-shaped zipper pulls, and great mobility. The Xenon X also scores well for comfort; its light fabrics and lofty insulation just plain old feel good and the snug hood, which features large micro fleece chin and neck patches, was our favorite of the bunch.
We really like having hoods on our insulated jackets, since they provide a cozy warmth upgrade for very little weight. A hood is also impossible to misplace, unlike a hat or scarf. That said, a hood can sometimes get in the way if you're planning to wear your layer primarily under a shell that has its own hood. Many of the hooded models we tested are available in a hoodless model; it's also important to note that we did not penalize the test models without a hood in either comfort or warmth.
We've all been caught out when the wind started howling or an unexpected light rain starting falling. Most of the products we tested in this review are designed to be worn primarily as a mid-layer, with a rain jacket or hardshell added over top for foul weather protection. That said, many users frequently employ these products as their outer most layer. We wore all the jackets in this review as outer layers while hiking and running in fall and early winter conditions. We also toted many along on multi-pitch climbs as both warmth and wind protection. In addition we took them all out for wind testing outside of Nederland, Colorado - known for its cold, slice-right-through-ya winds that barrel down from the Continental Divide. We weighted weather resistance as 15% of our overall scores.
Insulated jackets are not usually designed to be waterproof or windproof outer layers. If you're looking for a jacket that combines the warmth of an insulated jacket with the weather protection of a hardshell, be sure to check out our ski jacket for men review.
Models with a continuous or near continuous outer fabric do a better job of stopping the wind. The Xenon X is the most weather resistant of the 60 g/m2 insulated products tested. Its nylon ripstop fabric has a Pertex Quantum coating that works great in light rain and snow, and it is practically windproof. While this model is not seam-taped, the shell design minimizes the number of seams. The Xenon X is the only one of the light models we'd purposefully wear without a shell during a short, light rain. Also notable among this class of jackets is the Rab Strata Hoody. While it uses a soft wicking lining and breathable insulation, the Pertex Microlight outer fabric is quite wind resistant and beads water well. This is in contrast to the other two models that use advanced breathable insulation. The shell fabrics on both the Nano Air, and to a lesser extent, the Uberlayer let the wind blow through.
The medium and heavy insulated models we tested all earned high weather resistance scores - their bulk does a great job stopping the wind from penetrating. The heavily insulated Patagonia DAS is also built with a PU-coated shell fabric; overall, the DAS is very water resistant and completely stops the wind. The hybrid construction jackets present an interesting conundrum in rating weather resistance. Take the Best Buy winning Cathode, for example. The torso, shoulders, and top of the sleeves are built with water resistant Pertex Quantum fabric. This resists a light rain well, and stops the wind. But the breathable underarm and side panels let the wind blow right through.
What all of the models in this review have in common is a DWR-treated outer fabric. Although an insulated jacket is never a substitute for a waterproof shell, this treatment is applied to the outer fabric to make it bead water in minor drizzles or unexpected snow storms.
Highly breathable insulated jackets are a relatively new arrival to the market, and are designed to regulate temperature and wick away sweat during high energy activities in cold weather. The introduction of Polartec Alpha and more recently FullRange insulation from Patagonia allows a new approach to breathability. The insulation itself moves moisture better than PrimaLoft, and it promotes better air flow. The Patagonia Nano Air pairs its FullRange insulation up with stretchy, breathable shell fabric and a wicking lining to create the most breathable model we tested. Not far behind is the Outdoor Research Uberlayer. The warmer Uberlayer uses similar fabrics paired with heavier Polartec Alpha insulation. For high energy activities like backcountry skiing and winter running, these two jackets are game changers. Just add a super light shell like the Marmot Essence or Outdoor Research Helium 2 in case it gets really windy. The third highest score for breathability goes to the Rab Strata. This model also employs Polartec Alpha, but pairs it with a more wind resistant Pertex shell fabric. The large hand pockets of the Strata do double duty as core vents.
The long-standing approach to making a Primaloft or Coreloft product better suited to high levels of exertion is to incorporate low bulk and highly breathable panels under the arms and on the sides of the jacket. The Outdoor Research Cathode and Arc'teryx Atom LT both take this hybrid approach. Wind resistant fabric protects your core while the stretchy side panels dump excess heat. These two hybrids (which both have traditional insulation) earned the next highest breathability scores after the three advanced models above. Unsurprisingly, the medium and heavy models we tested were the least breathable.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but we've done our best to assign a style score to each of these pieces. Puffy jackets aren't just outdoor recreation items these days and some of these products just look better than others for around-town wear. Some of these, the ThermoBall for example, have lots of quilted stitching in the outer fabric, which creates a distinctive look. Most have a shiny, techy looking ripstop nylon shell, but the Atom AR, Nano Air, and Uberlayer have a softer, more matte look and feel. You will find many photos of each product in their individual reviews, including close-ups of their outer fabric, as well as front and back views. Style ratings contribute 5% of overall scores.
We really like a hood on insulated jackets, as it provides a great warmth upgrade, but a floppy hood on your shoulders isn't exactly an out-to-dinner look. We tested a mix of jackets with hoods and without. Some of the hoodless models actually don't come in hoody versions, so if having a hood is important to you, please be sure to check out the "other versions" section of each individual review to see if there is a hooded version. All of our test pieces were size large, and the Style section of individual reviews is where we comment on the size and fit of each.
Care & Feeding of Insulated Jackets
If your insulated jacket is a workhorse piece, it will get dirty. As a mid-layer, body oils and funk will accumulate over time…or if you use it as an outer layer, it will probably get all kinds of dirty when you're playing hard. Washing and drying these jackets is far easier than caring for down. Always consult the manufacturer's care instructions, but a trip through the washer on cold or warm water with powdered detergent works great. Throw your jacket in the dryer on the lowest heat setting and you're done.
All the products in this review have a DWR treatment of some sort on the outer fabric and you'll want it to continue working over time. Often washing and drying will do a good job restoring a DWR coating that has begun to wet out (accumulating a film of water rather than beading it). Try a short dose of medium heat in the dryer.
Eventually, it will be necessary to reapply a DWR treatment to your jacket to keep it beading water like new. We prefer spray-on products as opposed to the wash-in varieties. We want the outer fabric to resist water well, but we still want the lining to be able to absorb and wick moisture from sweat away towards the outside. Wash your jacket, warm it up in the dryer, and spray on your product of choice. We find "baking on" the new polymers with hot air from a hair dryer increases their lifespan. Nikwax and Granger produce full lines of fabric treatments, including spray-on and wash-in varieties.
With the large assortment of models on the market today, choosing the best jacket can be tough. We rank warmth, weight, and compressibility high on the list of important attributes in this category, yet other features such as weather resistance and breathability may prove to be a top priority depending on your use. We hope that our rigorous testing will help to ease your search for the right jacket. For more information on buying the best jacket in this category for your needs, have a look at our buying advice article.
— Brandon Lampley
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